Saturday, April 6, 2013

James River: Jamestown 1610-1622: John Rolfe, Pocahontas, and the weed that saved Virginia

James River at Jamestown

John Rolfe sailed for Virginia with the Third Supply fleet in May 1609 aboard the Sea Venture, which was shipwrecked in Bermuda by a hurricane (the wreck of which is thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play The Tempest). The castaways spent ten months on the island building two new small ships, and finally set sail for Virginia again in May 1610. They arrived to find a skeleton colony on Jamestown Island. Sixty demoralized settlers had survived the “Starving Time”. There was no gold, no water route to the Pacific, little food, and the Virginia Company’s business venture had so far been pretty much a failure. Silk, glassmaking, lumber, sassafras, pitch, tar, and soap ashes had not provided a profit. Only the arrival of new governor Lord De La Warr with new supplies and settlers prevented the abandonment of the colony.

While in Bermuda, Rolfe’s wife Sarah gave birth to a daughter which died shortly after birth. Sarah died not long after the baby. Alone in Virginia, Rolfe turned his attentions to agriculture.

England was becoming enthralled with tobacco, but they preferred the sweeter product grown in warmer Spanish-controlled territories to the harsh plant the Virginia Indians grew. Spain and Portugal monopolized the tobacco trade in Europe. Spain closely guarded their crop, forcing England to import tobacco at high prices from their rival.

But Rolfe had somehow obtained Caribbean tobacco seeds which he planted in Virginia and exported to England. Within a short time, Rolfe was a rich man, tobacco had become the currency of the colony, and the Virginia Company had struck brown gold.

Pocahontas had saved Jamestown from starvation. John Rolfe saved it from financial ruin. The law of romance novels demanded their tragic union.

Pocahontas (“Little Mischief”) was the nickname of Matoaka, the favorite daughter of Powhatan, the powerful ruler of a confederation of Algonquin tribes in the area. Still a little girl when she (may or may not have) saved the life of John Smith and befriended the colonists, she had grown into a young woman and became a political pawn. Taking her captive in 1613, the English held her hostage in hopes of negotiating a permanent peace with Powhatan.

While living with the English, Pocahontas was taught the English language and customs, became a Christian, and was baptized, taking the Christian name Rebecca. Obtaining permission from both Powhatan and Sir Thomas Dale, governor of Virginia, Rebecca married John Rolfe April 5, 1614, initiating an eight-year peace between the English and the Powhatan Confederacy.

In 1615, Rebecca gave birth to a son named Thomas. The following year, John, Rebecca, and Thomas traveled to England. Since King James I had declared Powhatan to be the “emperor” of Virginia, Pocahontas was received as a princess and referred to as the “Lady Rebecca”, becoming quite a celebrity in London and meeting the king.

As the family prepared to return to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill, and died in March 1617 in Gravesend, England, where she was buried. Thomas, also ill, was left in England in the care of John Rolfe’s brother and did not return to Virginia until years later.

Powhatan died in 1618, and the fragile peace forged by Pocahontas’s marriage began to dissolve.

As tobacco production boomed, a stream of new colonists arrived and spread out along the many navigable rivers draining into Chesapeake Bay, establishing plantations to exploit the new source of wealth. The land grab exacerbated disintegrating relations with the Powhatan tribes claiming the territory.

On March 22, 1622, Powhatan’s successor Opechancanough led a wide-spread coordinated surprise attach on the colony, killing over 300 people, about a third of the white population of Virginia. Jamestown itself was spared destruction when an Indian boy living in the home of a colonist across the river from Jamestown warned them of the attack. Many of the outlying settlements, however, were devastated.

Rolfe subsequently married the third time to Jane Pierce, with whom he had a daughter, Elizabeth. Through Thomas and Elizabeth, many well-known historical figures descended from John Rolfe and either Pocahontas or Jane.

John Rolfe served in several governmental positions in the colony after his return. He wrote a will March 10, 1622 in which he described himself as "of James Citty in Virginia Esquire beinge sick in body, but of perfecte minde and memory" and died sometime shortly thereafter. There are no records of either his surviving or being slain in the March 22 massacre, so it is probable he died of illness about the same time. His death was reported in London by May 3.


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